Which gets better fuel economy?
Since we’re talking about the Explorer and Highlander hybrids, let’s start off with fuel economy. In short, the Highlander wins by a landslide. It returns 35 mpg city, 35 mpg highway and 35 mpg combined with all-wheel drive (front-wheel drive gets 36 mpg). The all-wheel-drive Explorer Hybrid returns 23 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined (rear-wheel-drive get 27 mpg combined).
That’s as big of a difference as it seems. According to EPA annual fuel costs estimates, the Highlander Hybrid AWD would cost you $1,550 per year to fill up. The Explorer would cost you $2,200. Now, it should be said that the Explorer Hybrid is certainly better than the 22-mpg standard Explorer engine.
So, what’s the deal here? Why is the Explorer Hybrid so much lower? See the next section.
Which is more powerful?
The Highlander Hybrid features a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and electric motors that combine for 243 horsepower. It can tow 3,500 pounds. The Explorer Hybrid, on the other hand, features a 3.3-liter V6 and an electric motor that together produce 318 hp. It can tow 5,000 pounds. In case it’s not obvious, the Explorer’s acceleration is greatly superior and sounds a lot better than Toyota’s droning hybrid powertrain.
In short, the Explorer Hybrid offers more power and slightly better efficiency than the base Explorer engine. The Highlander, meanwhile, sacrifices some performance for fuel economy that blows away the competition.
Which is better to drive?
Because of the superior acceleration produced by its smoother, quieter powertrain, we would give the nod to the Explorer here. Neither is one of the more engaging offerings in the segment, but they also don’t disappoint. This certainly isn’t a reason to choose or avoid either.
Which is more comfortable?
The suspensions of both the Highlander and Explorer Hybrid are tuned for comfort (some would argue to their detriment), so we doubt anyone would object to the ride quality of either. Third-row space aside (see below), we haven’t noticed anything objectionable about seat comfort in either, but that’s an awfully personal preference that can only be fully answered by back-to-back test drives.
Which has a nicer interior?
Big-time victory for the Toyota Highlander here. Not only does it have one of the more impressive cabins in the segment with a handsome design and above-average materials quality (especially in the top trim level shown here), but the Explorer quite frankly disappoints on both fronts. Things get spruced up a fair bit in the King Ranch and Timberline with their unique color schemes, but they’re not available as hybrids, and in general, the Explorer has one of the weakest cabins among three-row family SUVs.
Which has better infotainment technology?
The Highlander got Toyota’s latest touchscreen infotainment system for 2023. While its graphics and processing speeds are top notch, its functionality frustrates. Radio functionality is odd, the navigation map deletes your zoom and orientation preferences when you move away to another screen, and there’s no easy way (like a home button) to quickly exit Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. The Explorer’s Sync3 touchscreen interfaces share the same Apple/Android escape issue, but is generally the easier system to use whether you get the standard 8-inch screen (below left) or 10.1-inch vertically oriented screen (above left). We’d add the bigger screen doesn’t really enhance functionality like you might expect, but we’d generally rather use it than Toyota’s.